Establishing a Program Decision Framework: Introduction to a new series on program management


Series on Program Management

By Russ Martinelli and Jim Waddell

Program Management Academy 

Oregon, USA

As Ricki Godfrey enters his office he stares at the poster pinned to the wall in front of his desk.  The poster shows a bulls-eye with the words “Bang Head Here” in the middle.  For a moment, he considers it.  “This is the third time I have been in front of our governance committee trying to get approval to move to the next stage of my program” states Godfrey in frustration.  “Every time I go in for approval I get a new set of questions to find answers to, more action items to follow up on, and direction to come back again in a month.”

What Godfrey describes is not an uncommon scenario.  In fact, in many organizations, gaining approval to move forward at critical decision ‘gates’ surfaces as a primary challenge for program managers and a major contributor to time-to-benefits delays.

So what is happening here? There are many reasons why program ‘gate’ decisions are difficult to obtain, of course.  Sometimes the decision criteria is unclear or unknown, or the decision methodology (consensus, consultative, authoritative) is not understood, and sometimes sufficient information to make an informed decision is lacking.  In Godfrey’s case however, the problem is more systematic.  His organization lacks a robust decision framework that focuses work effort on the achievement of the critical business decision-points that are a part of every program.

Lifecycle Process versus Decision Framework

Here’s the issue at hand. Like many others, Godfrey’s organization has gone to great length, investment, and effort in creating a lifecycle process that meticulously documents the various stages their programs progress through.  This is good, but what we consistently see is the bulk of the effort and process definition lies in defining the various work flows and outcomes during each stage of the process, and very little forethought and effort dedicated to the business decisions which need to be made at the culmination of each stage.

What if the way we think of our lifecycle models is reversed? Instead of viewing them as processes consisting of stages of work with decision ‘gates’ intended to allow work effort to transition from one stage to the next, we view them as a series of business decisions with iterative work cycles designed to prepare for and successfully transverse each business decision as it is encountered. Let’s look at an example.

Business Decision Framework

During the course of a program, a program manager will have to contend with unexpected changes in the market and organizational environment, a large number of uncertainties and assumptions that have to be tested and vetted, and multiple influential stakeholders with opposing views. For these reasons, a robust business decision framework provides the flexibility necessary to enable an adaptive management process that allows for changes in the program as new information comes in, and at the same time, provides anchors to align stakeholders and the program team on the critical business decisions necessary to successfully manage a program.

Figure 1 illustrates an example of a program-level decision framework that is based upon the critical business decisions associated with a program.


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The PMWJ series of articles on program management is authored by Russell Martinelli and James Waddell, principle advisors at the Program Management Academy in Oregon, USA.   More about the authors and the Program Management Academy can be found at http://www.programmanagement-academy.com/.

About the Authors

pmwj19-feb2014-martinelli-AUTHOR1 MARTINELLIflag-usaRuss Martinelli 

Oregon, USA 

Russ Martinelli is a senior program manager at Intel Corporation, one of the world’s largest semiconductor companies.  Russ has many years of experience leading global product development teams in both the aerospace and computing industries.  Russ is also a founder of the Program Management Academy (www.programmanagement-academy.com), and co-author of Leading Global Project Teams and the first comprehensive book on program management titled Program Management for Improved Business Results. Russ can be contacted at [email protected].

flag-usapmwj19-feb2014-martinelli-AUTHOR2 WADDELLJim Waddell 

Oregon, USA

Jim Waddell, former PMO director in the high-tech industry, is a founder of the Program Management Academy (www.programmanagement-academy.com) where he consultants in program management and mergers & acquisitions. He has held a variety of management positions in the high tech and energy industries, has been a speaker at numerous conferences, and is a co-author of two books:  Leading Global Project Teams and Program Management for Improved Business Results.  Jim can be contacted at [email protected].